No recent column of mine has provoked more controversy than my defense of Airbnb.com. In the column, I wrote about the Internet service, which enables owners of apartments to rent out their lodgings to transient tourists. That website initially was launched in response to the emergencies caused by sports or political events in a particular city that attracted so many visitors that all the city’s hotels soon were sold out. The founders of Airbnb.com found that they could place the overflow in apartments that had a spare room or a spare bed. The visitor found lodging, the apartment owner earned additional income and the city enjoyed maximum tourism.
That was how Airbnb.com began – as a method of placing visitors in a spare, unused bedroom of a resident’s apartment. But soon, some residents began renting entire apartments to visitors. In fact, it was claimed, some people began obtaining apartments solely for the purpose of renting them out to tourists. Apartments that could have been rented to would-be permanent residents of the city thus were taken out of the city’s housing stock and made available only to transient visitors.
And then the trouble began. From all over, critics began arguing that Airbnb.com was causing housing shortages in many key cities. In fact, it was claimed, some entrepreneurs were buying up such large apartment houses for rental solely to tourists that the apartment buildings had become “illegal hotels.” They not only paid no taxes to the city in question, but they also failed to abide by the various safety regulations applied to hotels.
In my column, I wrote that many of these complaints were out of proportion to what was actually happening. Though I acknowledge that some sharp business types are operating illegal hotels through Airbnb.com, I suggested that their number was much less than imagined. I cited instance after instance in which well-meaning residents offered their apartments to tourists during periods when the residents themselves were on vacation. I told of young people who periodically vacated their own apartments and moved in with a friend in order to earn occasional added income from renting the vacated lodgings to a tourist. That decision of theirs does not reduce the amount of a city’s housing stock. And I wrote about the many instances in which people rented simply a spare room in their apartment to tourists, thus doing nothing to reduce the number of apartments available to permanent residents.
In their critical comments on my column, most readers referred to practices in Europe, and especially in Paris, where numerous apartments are kept free of permanent residents all year and are made available only to tourists. I freely acknowledge that this practice may be more frequent in Europe than in the United States, and I also acknowledge that I may have underestimated the number of illegal hotels now operated here at home and made available through Airbnb.com.
None of us would deny the right of public officials to shut down illegal hotels. But there are too many instances, in my view, of prosecutors going after people who simply rent a single apartment they own to a tourist. And there are too many jurisdictions in which the latter practice is made illegal.
Surely there is room for compromise here. We should acknowledge the bad apples to which Airbnb.com sends visitors, and shut down those abusers of room shortages. More power to the public officials who close down illegal hotels. But we certainly should amend the regulations to permit individuals to rent their entire apartment to tourists on occasion. In this manner, the housing needs of tourists are met with no real damage to the number of apartments available to permanent residents.
But it is a waste of resources for the state of New York to go after individual renters of their own apartments, as the attorney general recently has done. If a person should need the income from renting a single apartment on occasion, he or she should be permitted to do so. And Airbnb.com performs a public service by working with them.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.